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Separated Korean Families Reunited at N. Korean Resort - 2003-02-20

Hundreds of Korean family members separated on the two sides of the Korean divide for decades are meeting at a mountain resort inside North Korea.

More than 500 South Koreans traveled a newly opened dirt road across the mine-strewn, fenced off De-Militarized Zone on Thursday for a reunion with a hundred of their relatives in North Korea.

This is the sixth such family reunion event arranged by the two Koreas since their leaders met in a historic summit in 2000 - and the first reunion since the North Korean nuclear crisis broke out late last year.

It also is the first time the South Korean family members have traveled to the North by the land route, which was only recently opened across the DMZ. Previous trips to the North were made by cruise ship.

Henry Morris, an analyst with Industrial Research and Consulting in Seoul, says it is difficult for outsiders to understand the emotional depth of these reunions, noting that many South Koreans have been in the dark about the fate of their kin for half a century. "The two sides have been separate for the last 50 years since the end of war with virtually no communication whatsoever. So they don't know if their relatives are even alive in the North," he explained. " They have no means whatsoever speaking to them of visiting them or anything."

South Korea says it gives priority to the elderly and people with direct family links in selecting who gets to make these rare trips. The Northern participants have reportedly all been screened for their loyalty to the communist government.

The reunions have been encouraged by outgoing South Korean President Kim Dae-jung as part of his "Sunshine Policy" of engaging the North in dialogue and exchanges. Mr. Kim retires next week, but his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, has pledged to continue that policy.

Several of those in the group that headed north are elderly women who never remarried after their husbands ended up in the North Korean military at the start of the Korean War. On most such reunions, the women learn that their husbands started new families in the North.

But they and the other reunited family members will have only until Saturday to catch up on more than 50 years of history. For many of the elderly - some in their 90s and in failing health - it is likely to be the last chance they have.